Obstructive Sleep Apnea – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

For people with undiagnosed and untreated obstructive sleep apnea, daily life can be a struggle as they battle lethargy and have trouble focusing and thinking clearly.  This can go on for years – or for the rest of their lives.  Sleep apnea is a relatively easy disorder for professionals to diagnose but is very difficult for sufferers to self-diagnose, because the symptoms mimic so many possible other conditions.

Here, we want to look at what can cause or contribute to this breathing disorder that happens during sleep, the early symptoms that can indicate sleep apnea and how formal diagnosis and then treatment with devices known as CPAP machines used in conjunction with CPAP masks can restore a person’s vitality and bring about restful sleep.

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Causes of sleep apnea

During the day, the muscles in our throats work automatically to keep our airways open so that breathing is normal and natural.  While we sleep, these muscles relax, causing the airway to narrow.  A person with sleep apnea will experience narrowing to the point that breathing stops momentarily at numerous intervals throughout the night.

Sleep apnea is caused primarily by genetics – the way the muscles, tissues and bone structure of a person’s head and neck are formed.  But other factors can contribute to what are known as “apneic events,” which are the breathing stoppages.  We’ll see a little later how CPAP machines and CPAP masks are able to prevent most or all of these events.

Enlarged tonsils can create blockages in the throat during sleep as can obesity, where excess fatty tissue makes the windpipe thicker.  In “normal” individuals, the brain sends signals during sleep to keep the breathing passage open, but people with sleep apnea may have weaker signals than the rest of the population.  However, even “healthy” people, when they age, tend to experience a decrease in the strength of these signals.

Sleep apnea symptoms

When breathing stops during sleep – and this can happen as often as 100 times a night, with some instances lasting as long as a minute – the brain is deprived of oxygen.  Depending on the number and length of the events and how long the pattern has been happening, a person can experience numerous critical health issues including heart attack, stroke, cancer and more.

Initial symptoms are less dangerous, but they shouldn’t be ignored.  There are three fairly common symptoms that can indicate sleep apnea:

  1. Loud snoring
  2. Daytime tiredness
  3. Mental fogginess

The first is a direct result of throat closure.  The second and third are the result of decreased oxygen flow to the brain during sleep.  A person with any of these symptoms should consult a physician who is familiar with sleep apnea and general breathing disorders.

It is estimated that 100 million people worldwide suffer from sleep apnea and that a mere 20% have been diagnosed and are treating the condition with CPAP machines and CPAP masks.  It’s easy to see why so few have been diagnosed: initial symptoms can be the result of many other conditions and lifestyle behaviors, so individuals will often self-diagnose.  If sleep apnea is, in fact, the problem, there is only one way to diagnose it and one first-line method of treatment.

Diagnosis and treatment of Sleep Apnea

If a physician suspects a person has sleep apnea, he or she will order a sleep study.  Here, the patient will spend the night in a sleep center, which is a facility with trained professionals who monitor the patient’s breathing and oxygen levels throughout a night of sleep.  The patient wears a nasal canula and possibly other equipment and has wires attached to several parts of the body.  These are all connected to monitoring equipment, which allows for accurate documenting of the amount and length of breathing stoppages and oxygen saturation.

Afterward, the physician will interpret the results.  If the diagnosis is sleep apnea, the patient usually will begin therapy with a CPAP machine.  These machines, when used with CPAP masks can make a dramatic difference in a patient’s quality of sleep and general alertness throughout the day.

The machines come in many styles with numerous features.  They provide continuous positive airway pressure (thus the acronym CPAP) while the patient sleeps, which helps to keep the throat from closing.  Often used along with a separate heated humidifier or one that is built in, the machine keeps humidity levels adjusted, which prevents excess dryness in the mouth, nose and throat.

Most patients take a little while to adapt to CPAP therapy.  A mask worn over part of the face all night long can be irritating, at first, to some patients.  But like with anything else, humans are very adaptable, and for many, in time, sleeping with a mask on seems like the normal way to sleep.

CPAP masks are designed with padding for comfort, but not every mask is right for every person.  The correct fit and sizing is critical so that a solid seal is formed around the circumference of the mask.  A physician, techs at the sleep center and retailers of CPAP equipment can be instrumental in helping new patients choose the right masks for them.

The CPAP machine is generally a compact unit not much larger than a clock radio.  Newer models tend to be very quiet and don’t create trouble for a person trying to fall asleep.  Settings on the unit allow the patient to set the desired air pressure.  Many machines download sleep data that both the patient and his or her physician can monitor.

While, as noted, beginning sleep apnea therapy with a machine and a mask can be off-putting at first, one thing that is not bothersome is more restful sleep, higher daytime energy levels and the ability to focus better and concentrate more strongly.  For most patients, it’s truly like starting a new life.

There are a few causes of sleep apnea that can be dealt with by the patient – enlarged tonsils, obesity – but most people with this disorder are simply predisposed to it through genetic causes.  CPAP machines and CPAP masks are the first line of therapy in these cases because they’ve been proven to work.  If you’re experiencing the common symptoms of sleep apnea, check with your doctor and find out what’s causing them.  The quicker you’re diagnosed, the quicker rejuvenating therapy can be started.

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